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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Brand Upon the Brain!” Director Guy Maddin

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Brand Upon the Brain!" Director Guy Maddin

Canadian director Guy Maddin has had an illustrious career in not only directing but also writing, cinematography, editing and even acting. 2003’s “The Saddest Music in the World” won a slew of festival recognitions as did “The Heart of the World” (2000). His latest release, “Brand Upon the Brain!” follows the story of a mother who “tracks her son’s every move, bellowing for him to come home over the ‘Aerophone’ just as something interesting is about to happen. The intrigue continues as deranged mother, hellbent on restoring her youth and sinister scientist-father who is sequestered night and day in his basement laboratory, engage in diabolical, secret experimentation. When new parents of recently adopted children from the orphanage notice strange wounds on the youngsters’ necks, a pair of teen sleuths, Wendy and her brother Chance, known as ‘The Lightbulb Kids,’ appear on the island to investigate–and in the process, inspire Guy’s first crush and Sis’ first love affair. The lurid family secrets that unfold are positively shocking.” Vitagraph opens the film in limited release beginning Wednesday, May 9.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I guess I always had a youthful off-the-rack desire to express myself artistically, but no art with which to do so. In my early twenties I thought I might write, but was a good enough reader to know I would only be a mediocre writer. I liked Lo-fi arts partly because it always seemed like I, trained in nothing, might be able to work in them myself. I loved basement bands, but was too timid to pick up a guitar; thought outsider art was cool but wasn’t outsider enough. That left low-budget experimental film. I saw no reason why primitive cinema couldn’t be as exciting and as respected as primitive painting, as beloved as the Ramones. I thought I would take all the Nabokov and Kafka effects I would have loved to accomplish as a writer and try to translate them into filmic effects. I thought bright young hipsters would embrace this cinematic analog to the basement band, but when I started I was no Ramone.

My films were slow-moving–dreamy, perhaps, and primitive to be sure, but not as accessible as three-chord pop. I kept trying, though, and found I could do other things way better than I ever suspected. Never thought I could use a camera, but I’m hooked on photography now. I recruited help from close friends and soon, in the ego-boiler that is indie film, made enemies out of almost all of them, but not before draining every last drop of inspiration from them and tossing them aside. Soon I had a style of my own, one based on loneliness, something to hang onto with a terror of losing it.
My long-time screenwriting partner George Toles was essential to my getting past the daydreaming stage of my career. He started out as my sounding board and advisor, and evolved into a full collaborative partner. We must both have the stubbornness of barnacles, we’ve only had one major fight over the years, so we continue to play in this toy-store medium, whereas all the other original partners and muses that inspired me during my I Vitellone years have succumbed to hatred or adult jobs.

Anyway, audiences when I started, even the audiences that loved basement bands, didn’t love Lo-fi filmmaking. But that’s all changed now. I’m happy to report that audiences and I have found each other at last, at least enough that I can feel the connection, the thrilling connection with an audience base. I feel a bit like a musician must.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

The industry side doesn’t stoke my day dreams. I still have trouble getting a producer to return my phone calls. I give up on all that stuff. Maybe the spirit of the times will shift even more and I’ll be refusing to return their calls some day. Maybe that power reversal will happen after my death. Maybe that will even happen because of my death, if I die wisely. I have to remember to be careful.

On the creative side, I really want to make a movie that works like music. Of all the art forms, music takes the shortest route to the heart. I’ve known that a long time now and for the last few years have tried welding my images to good music so that everything in my films will be allowed that same shortcut the score gets to take. But now I realize I have to write stories that possess the logic of music. If the very essence of a story is to take that same shortcut, it must feel like music–instantly feel-able, no rationalizing necessary. So I would like to make a dreamy, trancelike movie which barrels along and sweeps people up like a dance craze, but also makes compelling narrative and emotional sense. It must also be a bit mad, for rational music would be horrible. To be really great, music must have at least some if not a lot of the irrational, but poetically true, in it. So it is with movies, at least the ones I’m going to make.

Please talk about how the initial idea for “Brand Upon the Brain!” came about.

I’d wanted to make a childhood recollection film since I first picked up a camera. To me, anyone who recollects his or her own childhood is a poet for the duration of those nostalgic musings. One must think of childhood in terms of the faulty models of the universe one constructs while trying to make sense of the world. At the dawn of memory, one makes some wildly incorrect models of the world–these result in the almost narcotic magic of every new sensation being received incorrectly. Cause and effect are often flipped; new phenomena loom up hyperbolically and misleadingly; mysteries deepen instead of clearing up; everything is dreamy and wondrous! Truths are made more emotionally truthful by the mistakes and untruths. Childhood! Some of my favorite films capture this narcotic in a celluloid bottle–“Forbidden Games,” “Zero De Conduit,” “Faces of Children,” “Pather Panchali.” So I wanted to try my hand at this genre as well, wanted to intoxicate viewers with a forced revisit to earlier years. To the childhood of cinema itself.

Gretchen Krich and Sullivan Brown in a scene from Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!” Photo credit: Adam L. Weintraub.

Now there are some things that silent film still does far better than these talking pictures. One thing the silent does automatically is take a big aggressive and obvious step toward the artificial, away from the literal-mindedness that stupefies us when we are watching synchsound films. Everything in the silent seems more timeless, more universal, more lyrical. The silent film is closer to the fairy tale than the talkie. These are all strengths you want when tackling a childhood recollection film. Once I decided I was finally ready to tackle this genre I knew the film had to be silent. I also knew that I might not ever get a another chance to shoot a silent feature, and that the times having passed the silent by I had better indulge myself now and throw a complete live music, sound effects, interlocutor and castrato spectacular at the viewers.

So this is what we decided about half way through shooting, that the film had to go big, as big as the world seems to a sensitive child, if it were to go anywhere at all. So the film is touring with an orchestra, a team of Foley artists, Dov Houle my unearthly singer, and a platoon of dulcet-voiced vocal interpreters who pipe up with some expository spice now and then. I can’t believe we’ve tricked Lou Reed, Eli Wallach, Geraldine Chaplin–what a genetic connection with the first wave of silents she is!–Tunde Adebimpe, John Ashbery, etc. into stepping behind my lectern to perform during the screenings!

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.

My goals for any film are always the same: be as good as possible, reach people and reach them in the right way, tell them something about themselves they don’t want to admit and make it intoxicating.

My approach to making film has evolved however. I’ve learned to trust my instincts, learned to assume we’ll find the images we need to put everything across. I’ve learned to shoot the hell out of everything, to treat the camera like an ever-burping machine gun, to leave much to chance and then exploit what chance gives me. I’ve learned to shatter an image to find out what’s inside it, kind of cubistically splinter a face or gesture with the confidence that through editing it can be remade into an even greater whole than the original subject. With my editor John Gurdebeke I’ve figured out a deranged theory of neurological editing, which is responsible for a new feel in my films, a new filmic facsimile for memory.

My biggest influences in recent years have been Martin Arnold and Matthias Muller, two experimental Austrians who have really messed with my head through editing tropes that make Eisenstein seem lazy. My most enduring influences have been Vigo and Bunuel. I shouldn’t have to discuss how great those guys are.

Are there still other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker, and what is your next project?

Well, aside from trying to create the ultimately music-driven, musically constructed and emotionally musical film, I have plans for an interactive internet film labyrinth. This is in its development stages and financing is not yet secured, but it WILL happen if I have to pay for it myself. The script is in great shape. It’s called “Keyhole.” I’m working on it with my new friend John Ashbery, and my usual collaborators.

It’s inspired by the structure invented by the singular Raymond Roussel in his New Impressions of Africa. I wanted to see how many stories within sotries a movie could sustain. I decided to try for a preposterous amount. Then it changed into a honeycomb of stories, each cell within the honeycomb a self-contained short film, but the whole story cluster being something which can be navigated through by the viewer, who must choose among narrative options and in so doing determine the shape, tone and temperature of the longer, interconnected entirety. It’ll be fun-packed and full of mad-love sexiness.

I once had a man offer to pay me $700 to act in one of my films. It occurs to me that if there were ever a project which could be financed by people paying me to be in it, then “Keyhole” is the one. Please line up in an orderly fashion, aspiring actors.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

I like what Bunuel said at the end of his life, that he never in his long career included or removed a shot against his will. That’s a good working definition for independence in filmmaking, to have the same freedom we’re used to seeing from other artists, from authors. Now film has always been as much a business as an art form, but to be able to keep an eye cocked towards both halves of the concern without compromising seems an ideal toward which all indie filmmakers should aspire, no? I’ve always thought so, and that’s not likely to change as long as I’m making movies.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Just do it. That seems too simple, I know, but there’s something in that copyrighted chestnut which reminds one to quit daydreaming after a while and get down to realizing the dream.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…

It’s “Brand upon the Brain!” It all came together for me on this one. I got very lucky. You kind of need to know what you want out of a film, but it’s very important to be lucky, too. I got a windfall of luck this time round. Sheepishly, I must beat my chest a little here, because I’m very pleased with how it all came together.

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